Global food trends set to shape innovation in 2021

18 December, 2020

As the food and beverage industry moves on from the initial disruption of Covid-19, core trends driving change in the sector have shifted in emphasis.

Consumer concerns and expectations have evolved. Business model flaws that might have gone unnoticed for years have been exposed. Some areas of innovation and uptake have accelerated, while others have slowed or stalled.  

All of this will have a profound impact on what the sector does in 2021, and for years to come. When we conducted a multi-sector industry study, 73% of businesses said they expect changes prompted by Covid-19 to influence innovation priorities.

Understanding how Covid-19 has influenced trends, then adjusting innovation accordingly, will be critical to future success. If there’s one shared learning we can all take from 2020 it’s that business plans need to be inherently adaptive. The repercussions of the pandemic underlined the importance of agility and tested organisations’ capacity for modern ways of working.

So, what are the global trends that will shape innovation for the coming year, and how have they changed? Based on our conversations with sector leaders and horizon scanning work, we’ve identified three overarching themes:

1. Health and wellness: food, nutrition and immunity

While health and wellness was a key trend prior to Covid-19, the pandemic has accelerated its transition from general healthy eating to a more focussed position. Use of ingredients that promote immunity and new approaches to personalised nutrition are likely to take centre stage in 2021.

For instance, we expect to see increasing convergence between the nutrition and supplement industry and the food and beverage sector. One area that’s gaining much attention is the use of Vitamin D. Long associated with bone and muscle health, its potential to boost immunity has been highly publicised during the pandemic. Scientific research into the role it may play in the prevention or treatment of respiratory infections is ongoing. This will be an important area to watch in the coming months.  

Activity surrounding immunity and personalised nutrition will go hand-in-hand with stronger product claims about health benefits. To earn consumer trust and achieve competitive differentiation, these should be backed up with robust evidence wherever possible. Understanding and monitoring the regulatory landscape surrounding product claims will also need to be a high priority, both during product development and following launch.    

Download our whitepaper for more insights on the personalised nutrition trend.

2. Sustainable and ethical food production

While health and wellness were top of mind for consumers in 2020, it doesn’t mean people have stopped caring about ethics and sustainability. We undertook a survey of 2,160 GB adults in October which revealed 47% are worried that there has been an increase in single-use plastic due to Covid-19. Additionally, 40% worry that the topic of climate change has taken a back seat.      

Sustainability will continue to be a major driver of change in the food and beverage industry. This will manifest itself in areas such as supply chain transparency and new methods for primary sourcing as well as the creation of products with inherent sustainability credentials.

Within this trend, we’ll see ongoing innovation in the alternative protein space. The current momentum behind plant-based proteins could increasingly encompass algae, mycoproteins or insects. The search for a perfect meat or dairy alternative, from a nutritional and sensory perspective, is not yet over.

It’s important to note that the wider sustainability implications of some plant-based ingredients are still not fully understood. Food and drink businesses need to be acutely aware of developments which could undermine their marketing propositions.

The issue of food waste also remains a major concern at all stages of the farm to fork journey. It’s set to become an innovation hotspot during 2021 and beyond as companies look to play their part in creating a sustainable food future.

Our whitepaper on food waste upcycling was very popular in 2020; you can download it here.

3. Modern food and drink business models

As people were forced to stay home during lockdowns and periods of self-isolation, online sales and direct-to-consumer distribution took on greater significance. This trend towards modern trade had already taken off, but its trajectory has been escalated by the pandemic. Expansion here will continue, and there’s growing recognition that SKUs may need to be adjusted accordingly.

This trend goes beyond home delivery of grocery essentials. With restrictions placed on the food service and hospitality sectors, the high-quality in-home food and beverage category received an unprecedented boost too. In the months ahead we’re expecting to see more brands focusing on ways to close the quality gap between professional food and drink experiences and what consumers create at home. This needs to be achieved without adding too much complexity to the use case. For instance, beverage innovation might focus on multi-part packaging systems that protect vibrant fresh flavours in ambient cocktails.

Another consequence of the pandemic was the exposure of supply chain fragility. Longer chains typically resulted in more profound disruption. Business models that focus on regional sourcing for better supply chain resilience are likely to become more prominent going forward.

Science-led food and drink innovation

The three trends we’ve explored here are often interconnected in a food and beverage context. Reducing meat consumption can be beneficial for health as well as improving sustainability. Personalised nutrition calls for the development of innovative direct-to-consumer business models. Supply chains based on local sourcing can be more environmentally sound than complex, lengthy systems.

Being mindful of the bigger picture enables product innovation to unlock more substantial benefits that address multiple consumer demands.

This is an exciting time to be working in the food and beverage sector. While Covid-19 brought many challenges, it has also accelerated positive change. Consumer appreciation of science and technology received a boost too. According to our October 2020 consumer survey, the pandemic made 25% of Brits more aware of the role science can play informing decisions about the products they buy.

As an industry, we have a golden opportunity to educate and inform consumers about the role of science and technology in food and drink, in terms of individual health, enjoyment of products and global food security.

This was highlighted as a key factor for the coming decade in Mintel’s Global Food and Drink Trends 2030 report where the authors pointed out that “[the] global emphasis on letting science lead the response to the pandemic will hasten the progress of consumer trust in food science and technology.”

As we look ahead to the next 12 months and the next ten years, health, sustainability and consumer trust will be critical considerations. But this will always be set against the core need to provide products that people enjoy at a price they can afford. Science and technology will be central to the sector’s ability to get the balance right.


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